Time to become a Republican?

I find it wryly unsurprising that, just a week after running naked in the street in unabashed celebration of Barack Obama’s victory, I have managed to find his first concrete action entirely misdirected and not at all the kind of original thinking we’ve been looking for. Apparently, the most urgent thing to do in order to save the Economy is to throw a few additional fortunes at flailing corporations. Obama even notes that “his support for [assistance] once he takes office, is contingent on their [carmakers’] willingness to agree to transform their industry to make cleaner, more energy-efficient vehicles.” Way to go, Barack; we always knew that a bit of finger waggling ought to do the trick.

What I really cannot fathom is the reason why, against all reason, can Washington never produce a single fresh, interesting idea? So a sector in the Economy is going to hell. Whatcha gonna do? Prop up old, antiquated, outdated corporations, with their ambition fossilized and imaginative arteries hardened; or find a way to really give innovation and the old Entrepreneurial Spirit a kick in the pants? The latter has my vote (not that I have one, of course).

The economic strength of our civilization lies in its embrace of the competition of ideas; if we allow this sort of institutionalism to take over by following the “too big to fail” doctorine, we will lose the distinction between the public and the private sectors. When the Government sets up what is effectively a $700bn Partial Nationalization Fund for the financial sector, and proceeds to blindly throw money at anybody with a sufficiently large annual turnover, it puts its thumb on the scales of the Market (assuming there’s room for another thumb) — and invites the Market to put yet another thumb on the scales of Government (How many thumbs that guy got, anyway?). In the end, the great danger is that the two sectors would merge, and we’d get the sort of Corporatist Republic we dreaded in the first place.

Alarmist? Sure. But if you take a look at history, you’ll see that there generally is good reason to be alarmed. This signal, this first concrete policy statement Obama presented to the nation was not a surprising, intriguing, creative proposal to get at the root of our economic problems and, say, encourage business startups in the auto industry. Instead we got conventional thinking, back scratching, and yet another bailout of a hollow giant, making our tangled mess of a civilization look more and more like Humpty Dumpty strolling along with a blindfold.

P.S. Here are a couple of interesting articles on the subject:
Bailout to Nowhere
Chances Dwindle on Bailout Plan for Automakers

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Published in: on Friday, November 14th, 2008 at 5:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Valuing Votes

I have encountered an article on the New York Times article by Sarah Cowan, Stephen Doyle and Drew Heffron titled “How Much Is Your Vote Worth?.” This article is misleading. I do not wish to say that the article does not make a good point; merely that the point is misleading.
The article begins:

“‘THE conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing — one person, one vote,’ the Supreme Court ruled almost a half-century ago. Yet the framers of the Constitution made this aspiration impossible, then and now. “

A worthy statement, and true. It is well demonstrated in the lines that follow that, for a variety of reasons, the electoral college is built in such a way, that “a voter casting a presidential ballot in Wyoming three and a half times more influential than a voter in Florida,” and that “The presidency could be won with just 22 percent of the electorate’s support, only 16 percent of the entire population’s.” Put that way, this statement (which I’m sure is perfectly correct) appears very worrying, but it’s severely misleading.

Here’s why: If you were planning to take over the country using subliminal messages on TV, you would only have to administer targeted brainwashing to 16 percent of the population to win! Efficiency. In conventional presidential races, it is understood that all 47.8 million specific individuals required might not be available to vote for your side, so you cast your net wider.

But all that is quite marginal. The big problem with Cowen’s argument is that it is made out of context. The quote speaks of political equality, without mentioning that it is not the sole component of democracy as we practice it; otherwise, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would be much shorter. A basic feature of democracy is, that it does not equal the rule of the mob, and that political minorities should not go unrepresented. It might be tempting to trounce these damn North Dakotan farmers once and for all, because there aren’t that many of them; but those damn North Dakotan farmers also have a stake in this country, and they’ve done their share building it, God knows. If “one person, one vote” was the sole guiding principle of our political system, it would be easy to ignore them; but when ignoring people, you should always worry that the next guy ignored will be you.

We give individual voters in some states fractionally more voting power, because while those states may be poor in population, they are as rich in culture, tradition, and importance as other states are. It is more virtuous in any case to talk to them and persuade them than to simply vote them gone; more than that: to do so would be to betray democracy.

Published in: on Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  

The Politics of the Future

I read a very interesting article today, called a politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism; I suggest you read it first, because my summary is rather poor. Broadly, this article discusses the implication of the series of global crises we’ve enjoyed in the last year, or the opportunities it provides to radicals both in the left and in the right ends of the political spectrum. It speaks of the “transition towns” movement in England as an example of the kind of localizing trend rising energy prices foster, and warns that this trend towards localization could cause a return to the days when we were all clannish and xenophobic. The authors and commentators ask pleadingly for an answer to their question: is it possible to have our liberal cosmopolitanism as well as our dream of a low-energy society? Can we retain our interconnected, multicultural world even when we can’t hop on a plane to Tokyo?

The answer probably lies in the fact that, although we will certainly have to reduce the amount of energy we use and replace our way of life with something completely different, the most important things that opened up our world are certainly here to stay; I find it hard to believe that even the complete collapse of our civilization will prevent Shortwave radio nuts from hooking their transmitters up to a solar panel, or the determined traveller from getting on a boat. Hell’s bells, even if we end up going back to covered wagons, didn’t they get the old pioneers all the way to Oregon? And those guys didn’t have radios, water filters, propane burners, GORE-TEX, or the Internet, all of which I am certain Humanity will retain.

The social innovation that we should be searching for is one that will finally reconcile the useful aspects of our modern technology and thought (and boy, there are a lot of them) with traditional, down-to-earth ways of life; that kind of world is not hard to imagine — think about a bunch of hippies in a teepee with a solar panel and satellite linkup (or digital shortwave radio if satellites aren’t available), surrounded by native prairie. They’ll be chatting with their buds in Tunisia while downloading a good book from Project Gutenberg, when a wildfire alert comes up, whereupon they will collapse the carbon-fiber frame of their tent, stick it on their bikes, and follow the bison away from danger.

Agrarian and urban societies are just as easy: useful, relevant technology and ways of thinking will remain, while those that have no use outside of this house of cards we live in will go the way of the Dodo — and good riddance. The important thing as far as our cosmopolitan liberalism is concerned is that those with the curiosity will certainly have the means to connect with like-minded individuals around the world through whatever decentralized, peer-to-peer version of the internet will exist, and those in cities will, as always, have the opportunity to meet and mingle with people of all shapes and colors.

In fact, I would argue that such a future world, while it would certainly have pockets of isolation, will be radically more diverse and than it is today: one of the main problems that we have today, in my opinion, is that there only appears to be room on this planet for one way of life: get a job, have an address, have a number. The urban, civilized way of life has completely taken over those parts of the world where you’re not likely to get killed on a daily basis. That is the direct result of unbelievable levels of centralization enforced by energy-intensive technology (I realize that this statement would need a lot of defence, but bear with me). My point is, that the traditional division of humanity into the urban, agrarian, and nomadic spaces is in for a comeback: the coexistence of those spaces is the kind of sustainable solution that worked for thousands of years, that encourages diversity in ways of thinking and living, that gives people the freedom to live the kind of life they are suited to. Although liberal values are not as useful in all those spaces equally, I think that it is safe to say that the world in which the urban, agrarian, and nomadic spaces variously combine with modern technology and thought is as worth looking forward to as it is inevitable.

Published in: on Thursday, October 23rd, 2008 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

Police at the RNC

I finally got together a couple of interesting links about the alleged police abuse at the Republican National Convention. One of the articles is a publication from Amnesty International, a top-notch organization that is recommended by the frequent attacks it endures from oppressors everywhere, and the other is from Democracy Now! whose reporter Amy Goodman along with her film crew got arrested at the RNC, interviews members of I-Witness, a video witness collective and the National Lawyers Guild about questionable police raids on themselves.

“Amnesty International recognizes the challenges involved in policing large scale demonstrations and that some protestors may have been involved in acts of violence or obstruction. However, some of the police actions appear to have breached United Nations (U.N.) standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials.”

http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?id=ENGUSA20080905001

“AMY GOODMAN: I asked a police officer about the weapons. He said, yes, there was an AR-15 automatic rifle there.

EILEEN CLANCY: That the police were carrying.”

Always good for a laugh, those coppers.

http://www.democracynow.org/2008/9/4/i_witness_video_collective_forced_out

Published in: on Tuesday, October 21st, 2008 at 15:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Exceptional

I don’t like American exceptionalism; while America is indeed a very special place, it’s not healthy for a society, or a person, to believe that his way is the best way and he is always right. That kind of attitude kills not only freedom, but entrepreneurship as well: when things are just fine as they are, well, that’s when you stop reaching for the stars. Stop reaching for the Stars… Ain’t that such a mournful phrase? It holds such despair and finality in so few words; it’s almost like a eulogy: “He just gave it up. He always tried to Reach for the Stars, but then he couldn’t take it anymore.” Well, The Stars in this context mean something that never can be reached — you can reach for them, but you cannot reach them. If you think you’ve reached them, then first of all you can’t, because they’re Stars, and second, you stop trying. Now if that’s not un-American, I don’t know what is.

Published in: on Saturday, October 18th, 2008 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Sticks, Carrots, and Fascist Bastards

Much virtual ink has been spilled over last night’s Presidential Debate, which I found boring and stale; I will save my ones and zeroes to quote for my nonexistent readership some douchebag from the American Enterprise Institute (here dissing Obama’s stance on diplomacy):

“Unfortunately, the American people’s desire for peace is not shared by many dictators. In such a world, coercion matters as much as engagement. President Theodore Roosevelt sought to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” When candidates seek, a century later, to speak softly and carry a big carrot, it is not diplomacy; it is naivete.”

Let’s start at the beginning, with the American People’s famous desire for peace, from the (say) Mexican War to (say) Iraq. It’s not that I’m dissing the American People — a most excellent people by all accounts — but to deny them their healthy aggressive instinct, so finely demonstrated in the Enterprise gentleman’s tone and content, would be to do the American People a disservice. It is a well-known feature of the most intractable conflicts that each side believes that it itself desires only peace, while its enemy understands only force; this sort of belief is usually strongly encouraged (to put it mildly) by schools and other public institutions. Perhaps Herr Rubin (oh the irony!) is aware of this context, or maybe he is merely responding to his natural instinct; in either case with each such ridiculous, untrue, and, yes, dangerous statement he gives the forces of conflict a small but definite boost. Great Job!

And as for Theodore Roosevelt, Rubin forgets the first part of the aphorism: Speak softly. Don’t run around yelling and breaking things with your stick. People might stop fearing it, and you could even break it. What carrots have to do with it, I don’t know.

I’m sick and tired of many things: I’m sick of unimaginative chatter and political correctness; i’m tired of spineless populism, hedging, and playing it safe; but most of all I’m sick and tired, and afraid, of fascist incitement mixing metaphors to masquerade as something that makes sense.

Published in: on Saturday, September 27th, 2008 at 5:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Terror and Tyranny

I would like to start this post with a bombastic hyperbole (pardon the pun): I’d rather have a bus bombing a week in this country than another power for the Government to spy on its citizens.

This statement might, to some, seem heartless and ignorant, even dangerous; but for once, I am not talking out of my ass, and I have some knowledge of my topic — I was born in the former Soviet Union and was raised in Israel: my family were dissidents in the USSR, and I grew up under the constant shadow of war and terror. I have spent many hours thinking about those issues; those experiences shaped my political beliefs, and at any rate they have made an indelible mark on my personality and history.

So can there be anything worse than a five year old struggling with a gas mask in a sealed room, or hearing that (God forbid!) a friend or relative was killed in a senseless act of violence? Imagine a child refusing to go to bed until the siren has come and gone, or fearing for your life when a fat guy in a big coat gets on the bus; I repeat, can anything be worse than those things?

The answer is yes: what is worse is smuggling homemade tapes of Rock music and listening to them only in the dead of night, so the neighbors won’t hear; what is worse is only having one night to copy a forbidden book so the Secret Police won’t get you and send you to Siberia; what is worse (to take examples from other times and places) is to be beheaded for complaining about the price of bread, or sent to Bedlam because you said that you think the Government is in the wrong. Those things are worse than any terror attack.

And I’ll tell you why: because wars end, and terrorist campaigns peter out. Because oppression divides and horrible violence unites the people in grief. Because everyone dies sooner or later, but to live your life under the unblinking eye and heavy arm of the tyrant can make life unbearable and inspires more terror than any suicide bomber: deep-seated, heavy, unrelenting terror. Compared to life as a slave, with no freedom or privacy, a terror campaign is like some fire ants disturbing a cookout: scary, sure; but it is better than having to always roast the pig and eat the intestines, better than being whipped if you open your mouth to speak unless spoken to. Being a slave is no picnic, not even one that has been rudely interrupted.

Sounds alarmist? Well, there appears to be something to be alarmed about. Several somethings, in fact, but I would like to make an example in the shape of an ominously named (to me, at least) act of Congress, Resolution HR 1955, or the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007. Having failed to find anything about it in the large newspapers (which in itself is very suspicious, considering some of the Act’s language), I have decided to present the relevant Wikipedia entry; Here’s a highlight:

One [criticism of the bill] is the perceived overly broad and vague definitions of “force”, “home grown terrorism” and “violent radicalization” (section 899A). Critics charge that the vagueness in these definitions would permit the government to classify many types of venerated American political activity, such as civil disobedience, as terrorism. Critics frequently cite Section 899A which reads, in part: “The use, planned use, or threatened use, of force …to coerce the ..government, (or) civilian population ..in furtherance of political or social objectives”,[18] as particularly problematic. They argue that major societal reforms which are now accepted but were perceived at the time as threatening to the government, such as civil rights, suffrage, and others, would be classified as terrorism.

Of course, the bill’s sponsor says that the above language “should” read  as ‘intentionally aiding and abetting’ violent radicalization; please allow me to dismiss this hogwash out of hand: FEH! if that idiot, Jane Harman or whatever its name might be, wanted the bill to be read that way, why did she write it that differently? When the executive is given the opportunity to exercise gratuitous surveillance and control over its citizens or subjects, it uses it! Once the door is opened, it’s a whole lot harder to close again, partly because somebody might one day not too far in the future “prevent” criticism of the bill from reaching any sort of proportion. Isn’t it a great idea to make a radicalizing law to stop radicals? It is, if you want to put everyone under your boot with hardly anyone noticing.

And anyway, who are those “homegrown terrorists? Folks like Charlie Chaplin, who had to flee the country because he was accused of Communism, or Alice Paul, who was tortured, assaulted, jailed, and had a tube shoved down her throat in the psychiatric ward for wanting to vote despite happening to be a woman? MLK anyone? Oh yes, I know: old Bill Ayres, an angry hippie who blew up a statue dedicated to riot policemen and chipped some paint off the Pentagon; scary stuff. Probably the best-known and most successful Violent Radical in this country’s history was one George Washington, who left his home in Virginia for the battlefield, as, I must point out, the leader of an armed insurgency.

Freedom is more important than security; that is why back in 1775, colonists rich and poor gave up the protection of the British Empire to fight and die in Freedom’s name. Some, maybe most, did not know exactly what Freedom meant; I’m not at all sure I do. But if you asked them whether having a guy listen in to their dinner table conversation for the sake of their “safety” meant they were in a state of freedom, I give you one guess as to what their answer would have been.

Published in: on Saturday, September 20th, 2008 at 0:43 am  Comments (2)  

The Spindle

Woman spinning flax using a drop spindle and distaff. MS Fr. 599, f. 40, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris 15th c. France

The ancient Greeks believed that life was like to a thread, and that the three Moirai, or Fates, spun it, measured it, and cut it. The destination in all cases is the same: an empty spool. And the rest? Story of our lives: how well or badly they are spun, in colors pale or bright; and in the end, what we make together: a tapestry or a rag.

Spin, thou Spindle, tell thy tales —
Of gaiety and sadness, inexplicably entwined;
Of threads and curtains, sweat and blood;
Though threads be cut, the Spindle spins anon
Another yarn or tall tale for the cat to play with.

Published in: on Thursday, September 18th, 2008 at 18:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cursed Apathy

Some things are worthy of a curse; that, for example, which will not lift a finger till it itself needs to be saved by the collective will or sense of justice; that, which wills to leave rule and execution to some other agency of import (or almost worse, the ragged monster of the headless mob); do that and look away till some injustice would descend on its unguilty head, whereupon it will indignantly be stunned by it.

Those ones, they have it coming: they could not care less what plagues another, so they should taste themselves the fruit of their uncaring zeal — that I say because sometimes it takes an effort to remain aloof; to insulate oneself from gray responsibility, and by a force of grotesque will remain an indistinguishable cog.

Perhaps the fools imagine themselves humble before the wisdom of some great; they are instead so proud as to suppose the hand of God can’t touch them by the virtue of some fallacious concept of neutrality. For, there is no neutrality but self-interest (while action serves sometimes another cause), and there’s no virtue in fence-sitting; to do nothing may sometimes be expedient and wise, but, as a rule to live by, inaction’s cowardly and selfish; for that there may be no reward, and punishment might richly be deserved.

Published in: on Monday, September 15th, 2008 at 5:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Lost Chances

Wings of fate carry in currents. It is strange how things go in a blink, to leave one gaping in the wind; perchance to catch a fly. Yet while flies in the mouth may be forgotten, a special place in the heart is set for every chance that’s lost. An elegant dance is danced; though roads may diverge in woods diversely colored, only one may be taken at a time; unless, that is, you are an electron. Strange beings, perhaps they are too small for the Universe to follow, so through the cracks they fall and can be in several places at once; or else, they are simply so diffuse as for a location to have no meaning.

But I digress; blinking is at issue here. One may blink once, and see the time is ripe. Twice may be cool as well; but a third, however wonted blink may bring a bullet list of questions answered. Such is the danger of a regimented life, that blinks sometimes are forced to follow in an unfortunate succession; and, sadly, no manner of frantically pulling the bell ever seems to restore time. Oh! Opportunity missed, a little untaken turn or shortcut that may have lasted all day and a lifetime… For each there is a time of mourning sadness that will invariably pass; although sometimes, if we look, then we may find it on the long way.

Published in: on Wednesday, September 10th, 2008 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment